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The Khmer word for narrative fiction is lpaen. It is defined as works for pleasure. And before the arrival of the French in the mid-19th century, all traditional Khmer novels were written in verse. The French were the ones to introduce prose to Khmer fiction. That is not to say that Khmers did not write in prose before then. Prose was exclusively used for technical writings, medicinal treatises, astrology treatises, political and religious treaties, and for the translation of Buddhist literature. A new word was coined for prose novels when the first one was published in 1938 to differentiate between verse and prose fictions. Anyway, let’s ignore prose fiction for now because this post is all about traditional Khmer fiction, the verse-novels.
Lpaen or verse-novel has always been a popular genre in Khmer literature. French colonists in the 19th century would gather around the village halls in the evenings to listen to a recitation of a lpaen. Recitation is sometimes accompanied by a string instrument. Some of the verse-novels are quite long, as long as 9,000 stanzas. And they would take at least two nights to recite. A few could be mistaken for epics because of their length and subject matter.
Verse-novels emerged in the mid-17th century with Hang Yont (Mechanical Swan) thought to be the first novel. Most of these novels were sometime alleged to be Jātaka (tales of the Buddha’s previous lives) because some were written in the style of Jātaka with the usual preface benediction in Pali to the Buddha, the Dhamma (Buddha’s teaching), the Sangha (ordained monks and nuns), and the epilogue that includes the future lives of the characters. But the majority of these novels had nothing to do with Buddhism; the link to Buddhism was very minor. If anything, they had everything to do with Brahmanism even when Theravada Buddhism had replaced Hinduism permanently by the 16th century. For example, in Preah Ko Preah Keo, the main character Preah Ko was the manifestation of Nandi the Bull, Lord Shiva’s mount. Several of these stories were folktales rewritten in verse forms. Vorvong and Sourivong was based on a popular folktale, which itself was based on the adventures of two condemned Khmer princely brothers.
A conventional story usually started with the birth of a prince. Then a jealous concubine accused the young prince of some transgressions, or the king was offended by a “flaw” in the prince; in Khyan Sankh, the prince was born with a shell attached to him. The prince and his mother were sentenced to death by execution. But at the last minute, the executioner took pity on both mother and child and let them go. The mother and child encountered a powerful sage, who then took the child as a student. The budding hero learned martial and magical arts. Later, he went off to have his many adventures in the Himalayas. Along the way, he battled giants and the semi-divine yaksha, rescued a princess or two, and gained a wife and a kingdom. Ultimately, the hero returned to his birthplace with his new army to either take the throne by force or reconcile with his father.
The hero used both physical and magical means to fight. He traveled by air via a mechanical bird (usually a swan), but his transport wasn’t always reliable. His mechanical bird malfunctioned and dumped him in the ocean, oftentimes in the middle of a storm. The hero had an animal as a companion. In Preah Jinavong, the main character Jinavong traveled with a naughty monkey. The horse in Puthhisaen Neang Kang Rei irritably told the hero not to idle about or he, the horse, will leave without him. On the other hand, the heroines weren’t always of the damsel-in-distress variety. In Sovannahang, Ket Soryong was well-versed in both martial and magical arts. She had her own adventures with a giant as a companion and they saved the hero from certain death. Kang Rei, in Puthhisaen Neang Kang Rei, commanded her own army. A pregnant Botum Surya in Preah Jinavong journeyed alone on a white elephant to find her husband.
The yaksha, garudas, and the giants weren’t always portrayed as uncivilized beasts either. They didn’t go around stealing princesses or snacking on men. Citra, the giant king in Sovannahang, ruled benignly over both men and giants. The yaksha in Khyan Sankh raised the hero as a son. She doted on him. She became sad when he decided to leave her to search for his real mother. She gave him three magical gifts and died from a broken heart. The naga king in Sankh Silp Jay was a loving husband to his human wife. Jinavong in Preah Jinavong was brought up by the king of the Underworld.
The Gods also played a role. Lord Shiva granted wishes to various characters. He had Vishwakarma, the divine architect and engineer, build grand palaces for the heroes. Lord Indra often offered the destitute heroines a helping hand. In Moranak Meada, Lord Indra showed the heroine how to transform herself from a sarika bird back into her human form. The lonely young man in Bhogakula Kumar had only a white dog for company; Lord Indra bestowed upon the young man a Himalayan deity as a wife. Magic was used throughout. An ax that was about to come down on the hero’s neck would suddenly turn into a bouquet of flowers. Baby girls were often found in flowers. Baby Kaki was found in a lotus blossom by a sage in Kaki. Oracles were aplenty. They wielded immense power when it came to dream interpretations. In Rajakul, the oracle told the king that the horse wanted to marry the princess. It turned out the horse was a fine man. The oracle in Sudham wanted his own daughter to marry the prince, and while the prince was away, he declared that the prince’s fiancée had to be sacrificed to avert catastrophe.
Some stories did not stick to the above narrative devices and themes. Some were about animals. Bejjata is a story about a pair of birds who were threatened by a forest fire. The female would not leave her eggs. She died thinking her male had abandoned her while he was away. Before following her into the fire, the male prayed that they may reunite in their next lives. She was reborn as a princess who spoke to no males. He was a man who taught her how to speak.
Another story that rejected the traditional formula is Tum Teav, which is a tragic love story about a doomed affair between Tum, a handsome novice monk, and Teav, a beautiful adolescent girl who was “literally” on the cusp of womanhood. Tum Teav is based on a real story. It is believed to have taken place in the late 16th century in Tbong Khmom district, in present-day Kampong Cham province. There are many versions of the story, which were composed by various poets over the centuries. You can read my summary of the story here.
These verse-novels are still popular among the general public. Some have been adapted into various entertainment mediums such as ballets, films, folk and classical theaters, songs, comics, and radio dramas. Sovannahang, Khyan Sankh and Preah Jinavong are very popular among the ballet repertoires. Tum Teav, probably the most popular of all the verse-novels, is part of secondary school curriculum.
Stories mentioned in the post:
Khyan Sankh (Shell Shell) by Min Uk, 1729
Hang Yont (Mechanical Swan) by Yam Punybhaktr, 1668
Sovannahang (Golden Swan) author unknown, mid-17th century
Preah Jinavong (Lord Jinavong) by Hing, 1856
Preah Ko Preah Keo by Kao, 18th century
Vorvong and Sourivong by various authors, 19th century
Puthhisaen Neang Kang Rei, author and date unknown
Sankh Silp Jay by Uk, 1882
Moranak Meada (Mother’s Death) by Uk 1877
Bhogakula Kumar by Kleang Norng, 1804
Rajakul by Varapanna, early 18th century
Kaki by King Ang Duong, 1815
Mea Yoen (Our Uncle) author and date unknown
Bejjata by Dhammapanna Maen, 1858
Sudham author and date unknown. Based on Sudhana Jataka in Pali
Source: The Traditional Literature of Cambodia: A Preliminary Guide by Judith M. Jacob